(Copyright, estate of Gaillard Hunt)
CITY OF MASTERLESS MEN
A few miles out from Washington Arthur Randolph turned the car off the Virginia highway and headed up a narrow lane. He soon had to stop for a gate and Root, who was riding in the front seat, got out and opened it by unraveling an intricate arrangement of bale hay wire. He got back in the car and Randolph drove through but stopped and said, "Have to close it again. Cows might get in and the Old Gent would raise hell."
When Root had finally seated himself in the car he said, "Next time I come out here I'm going to drive a tank so I don't have to bother with that gate."
"It is a nuisance," said Randolph. "It's why I don't come to town more often when we live out here."
The lane ran beside a wide unkept lawn at the top of which was an old rambling house with paint scaling off the pillars on the large porch. Randolph stopped the car and said, "Sorry I couldn't get the key from the Old Gent but it's cooler out here on the porch than it is in there anyhow."
Peter Mann lifted himself up in the rumble seat. The back of the seat was wet where he had been sitting -- it was that kind of an afternoon. He climbed down and said, "How's your water supply?"
"It's inside. Can't get to it," said Randolph.
"Don't need water for mint juleps," said Root. "That is, if Hilda and the rest of 'em bring enough ice. And I wish they'd hurry."
"Anyhow we've got the whiskey," said Randolph, mopping his neck with his handkerchief.
"And don't you guys forget," said Root. "We've got to replace that whiskey because it belongs to a policy holder of mine. We've got to go out to Mossburger's and replace it tonight."
"Okay, Root," said Peter, "We'll fix your man up for whiskey. Never let a policy holder down." He lit a cigarette and sat in the shade on the edge of the porch, looking down the lane to the highway where an occasional car breezed past. They were shirtsleeved government clerks and bare-armed women going for a Saturday afternoon drive to keep cool. One of the cars looked familiar and was crowded, it turned off the road and into the lane and stopped at the gate. "Here they are," said Peter.
"Bet they don't close that gate," said Root. They watched while Ed Collins got out of the driver's seat to open it, and Hilda moved over to drive through. But Collins stayed and closed the gate, then got on the running board and the car came up and stopped before the house. There was a large chunk of ice stuck on the rear bumper.
"Yea, ice," said Root.
"We got fifty pounds," said Hilda. "Also got a sack to crack it in."
Peter and Root went to lift the ice onto the porch and Sartain disentangled his legs and got out of the back seat and said, "Nice place you have here."
"I'm trying to get the Old Gent to fix it up but he says Depression," said Randolph. "Like to ask you inside, but haven't got the key."
Hilda said, "Well after all none of us knew we were going to come here this afternoon. We just all found ourselves together and here we are." She was wearing a plain white dress and large white earrings and Jane had on a light blue dress with white design and identical earrings. They both gave off an illusion of coolness.
Peyton, Jane, and Luther Struthers got out of the car and walked over to the porch. Struthers was a partly bald man in his early thirties who ran a small publishing house in Charlottesville, he was in town for the weekend and now Jane was sticking close to him and talking in a confidential manner about something or someone in Charlottesville while Peyton hovered by looking annoyed. Peter and Root were working on the ice with a screw driver, and Collins said, "What about this aforementioned mint?"
Randolph said it was a short distance back of the house, and Peyton said, "Let's go pick some, Jane."
"You go," said Jane settling herself against a pillar. "I'm going to stay right here and keep cool."
Hilda had brought some tall glasses and spoons, and when they made the juleps the only trouble they had was in keeping the ice clean since they had no water to wash it. It became evident that an unusually large quantity of Root's policy holder's whiskey was being consumed -- each drink took almost a half pint -- but Root said to go right ahead, there was plenty more out at Mossburger's, and Randolph said that was one of the nice things about juleps anyhow. Finally they were all sitting on the porch or on the steps and the drinks were going down easily enough --they were cool and alcoholic and thirstquenching. There was no breeze and the heat seemed to hover in clouds over the shaggy lawn.
"Wish I had some one to fan me," said Jane. "Peyton, see if you can find a long-handled fan somewhere."
"Randolph's family buried them when they learned the Yankees were coming," said Root.
"And the Yankees threatened to shoot old Uncle Joe unless he told where they were hidden, but Uncle Joe was steadfast and faithful unto death," said Peyton.
Struthers loosened his collar and blew down the front of his shirt and said, "Matter of fact, there is documentary evidence of just such an occurrence. It happened at least once."
"It was a calamity to many of those negras to be freed," said Sartain. He was sitting on the steps with his long legs stretched out and his elbows on the porch, and when he took a swallow from his drink he hunched forward so that he did not disturb the lower portion of his body.
"I think it was myself," said Hilda.
Sartain continued, "The negro was an essential part of the social structure of the Old South -- the only truly cultured civilization this country has ever seen. It was cultured because it had tradition and because it had a recognized aristocracy which cultivated the finer things in life and had to uphold the standards of the class and keep themselves honorable and above reproach. Then, as a corollary to that, it had an inferior and subservient race. It is, as you might say, necessary for a cultured civilization to have an inferior race as a part of it because it gives the aristocrats not only leisure but a sense of superiority and also a sense of obligation that they have to live up to. The negras were naturally positioned and naturally qualified to take care of menial work and there was very little abuse of the system. Also -- "
"Let me get into this argument," said Peter.
"It doesn't seem to be an argument," said Hilda.
"Maybe I can make it one. What I want to say is this. When guys like Sartain and DeBose Hayward and Stark Young talk about -- "
"Nice company you put them in," said Jane.
"All right. But when they talk about how nice and genteel slavery was, they always point to well-treated house servants, devoted and so forth. What they completely overlook is that's only part of the picture. House servants are instruments of comfort so it's more expedient to treat 'em well. However, the largest proportion of slaves were working negroes -- cornfield niggers -- and they were not well treated. They were instruments of production and they had to be exploited for their owners to make a profit."
"Still," said Sartain. "The aristocrats had an obligation even to the field niggers. They gave them security and treated them kindly. Any bad treatment they received was at the hands of hired overseers, mostly from the Northern states."
"You bet. It's a whole lot more pleasant to hire somebody to swing a whip than to do it yourself, if you can afford it, but that's not the point. The point is you can't pull an anachronism like that and get away with it. You can't reestablish feudalism in the eighteenth century and expect it to stand up. Just isn't being done."
Sartain said, "You're reasoning from an a priori assumption that feudalism was evil, as is customary in this materialistic age. You've never judiciously examined the spiritual values inherent in feudalism."
Struthers cleared his throat and said, "Feudalism was based primarily on absolute ownership of land. Its brutal aspects arose from abuses of power under the system. As the Southern Agrarians say -- "
"God," said Peter getting to his feet. "I need another drink if we're going to go into them. How about the rest of you?"
"You're way ahead of us," said Hilda. "None of us have anywhere near finished. But you go ahead, you're going to anyhow."
He scooped some cracked ice into his glass and walked to the end of the porch. Randolph, Root, and Peyton had finished their juleps and had evidently had a couple of quick ones -- they were standing close together and singing, "Eli Banana, starry banner, we are drunk boys, yes, every one. . . . " The empty pint bottles had been tossed on the lawn, and Peter reached into Randolph's car for a full one and said,"What did you do with Collins?"
"He's off climbing trees," said Root.
Peter poured some whiskey into his glass and went back to the steps. Struthers was saying " -- and quite a few people in Charlottesville are convinced it is the correct solution."
"I take it," said Peter, "you mean a step backward into feudalism?"
"A step backward isn't always a wrong step," said Struthers.
"It's a question of spiritual values," said Sartain.
"Now take it easy," said Peter. "Feudalism was all right if the accident of birth made you a baron, but it took a lot of underlings to support a baron. Suppose you turned out to be, er, a gatekeeper, for instance."
"I could be perfectly satisfied as a gatekeeper," said Struthers. "If my father had been a gatekeeper before me, and we had our accepted place in a stable civilization."
"You go right ahead," said Peter. "I insist on being at least a knight."
"That's because you're a knight. I mean you're temperamentally a free lance. But most people are satisfied as long as they are assigned a certain position in an immutable arrangement and feel themselves secure in that position."
"Dull bastards," said Peter. "But trouble is, things never are stable. Those old barons were continually taking pokes at each other, and the extension of commerce plus the development of firearms broke up the whole feudal system. In general, that is. Furthermore, the rise of Yankee industry broke up that nice plantation system in the South. The scheme of small permanent self-sufficient units of land, which I understand is the Southern Agrarian idea, has long ago been knocked over by technical progress and you just can't go trying to set it up again.
"Furthermore, and incidentally, modern production methods are making a wreck of capitalism. But it will be supplanted by something new that fits the situation, not something old and previously proven untenable."
"I knew it," said Jane. "I just knew we'd be talking revolution sooner or later."
"Isn't it remarkable," said Hilda. "Whenever people get together nowadays they always end up by talking about the revolution." She laughed. "Larry pulled a good one down at Charlottesville the other day. We were all sitting around talking about what a revolution would be like and he had to go get something and he said, 'Pardon me while I tumbrel out.'"
"Now wasn't that funny," said Collins sourly. He had come unnoticed around the house and now stood belligerently in front of the steps.
Hilda glared at him and said viciously, "I thought it was very funny."
"I could stand another julep," said Struthers. "What about you, girls?"
"Not me," said Hilda. "I don't want to get looping in the middle of the afternoon."
There was still some mint left and plenty of cracked ice that had not yet melted. Root and the others had come up the porch and were scooping up glassfuls of ice and pouring in whiskey. Sartain and Struthers took mint but the others mostly did not bother and Peter said, "Why didn't someone tell me what a good drink cracked ice and whiskey is?"
Hilda said, "Don't be afraid of that last bunch of mint, Root. None of us want it."
"Never let it be said that a Root knew fear," said Root, scooping it up. "Ten generations of Roots would turn over in their graves if they thought that I was afraid of a bunch of mint."
Ed Collins snickered and said, "Thereby causing a young earthquake out at Potter's field."
Suddenly Jane uttered an exclamation of alarm and pointed down the lane. They looked and saw a large car stop before the gate while a chauffeur got out to open it. The car proceeded up the lane and they saw that Mrs. Mann and Mrs. Randolph were in the back seat. It stopped in front of the porch and they stood up. Then they became conscious of the fact that empty pint bottles were strewn haphazard on the lawn, and there were a lot of empties.
Mrs. Randolph said to Mrs. Mann, "I don't think we'll get out."
Mrs. Mann called out, "You'll be home in time for dinner?" and Jane and Hilda chorused, "Yes, Mother."
Mrs. Randolph said loudly, "Clean the place up before you leave, Son. And don't forget to close the gate." The car backed around and headed down the lane.
Randolph broke the silence. "How was I to know the Momma was coming out here this afternoon?"
"And how did we know Mother was coming with her?" said Hilda. "But it would be bad enough anyhow -- look at all these empties."
"Looks like a drunken brawl all right," said Jane. "Well, now we are in wrong with the older generation."
"As usual," said Peter. He went on the lawn and began to gather up empties, but suddenly found himself involved in a medicine ball game with a twenty-pound chunk of ice. Root, Peyton, and Collins were the other players, they were heaving hard and indiscriminately and the game went on for some time. It was still going on when Peter managed to detach himself and go back to the porch.
He stopped in front of the steps and Hilda said, "What do you think of it, Peter, are we the lost generation? Luther has a theory that we are the real lost generation."
Struthers said, "Brought up in the post-war hysteria, no true religious or moral guidance, subjected to such influences as Prohibition, preconceived ideas of success destroyed by the Depression -- "
"Hell yes, we're lost," said Peter. "Doubly damned because we never received clearance from Gertrude Stein. Can't cash sight drafts and go screwing over the Alps."
"Shut up," said Hilda.
"Tais-toi ," said Jane. "Cochon."
"Phooey, Jane," said Peter. "Je veux que vous soyez mort, vous rascal vous. Je veux que vous departais cette terre, vous chien. Je vous ai apporte chez moi, vous ne pouvais pas laisser ma femme toute seul, je veux que vous soyez mort, vous rascal vous."
"I can talk French too. Popular songs rendered. Anybody that can talk French this well isn't drunk. Je rirai plien de gin, quand ils apportant votre cadavre dans. Je veux que vous soyez mort, vous rascal vous."
"Que'est-que c 'est que vous avez, que fait ma femme pense que vous etes si chaud, je veux -- "
He was interrupted by Root, who took his arm and drew him aside and said confidentially, "Now there's likely to be a fight -- Peyton and Collins are just boiling -- and you be on my side, see?"
"Hell yes," said Peter. Peyton yelled at him and threw the block of ice and he was in the medicine ball game again. He realized that it was a perfect setup for a fight and was glad he had made an alliance with Root. The ice heaving was bound to end with someone getting hurt and that would likely start a fight and there would not be any sense of direction to the fight -- he was more likely to be in it than not.
Someone did get hurt. The ice hit Peyton on the shin and he limped around in a cirlce, then stood on one foot rubbing the place. The rest stood around expectant. Somebody said, "Sorry," and Peyton said, "It's all right, it's all right, s'nothing." But he limped when he tried to put his weight on the leg. Suddenly he said, "Where's Jane?"
"Where's all of 'em?" said Root.
"Run off and left us. Fine stuff," said Collins.
"Left the gate open," said Randolph.
Peter rode back to town in the rumble seat of Randolph's car with Collins who sat hunched over and morose the whole way except when they were going over the Key Bridge where he burst out in a tirade against John Sartain, as Peter knew he would sooner or later. "Why is it that girls all fall for this southern stuff?" he ended.
"I'll have to take that up with my research department."
"Aw, I might have known I wouldn't get any sympathy out of you. I thought you were a pal." And he relapsed into his silence.
The sun had gone down when the car stopped in front of the Deauville Food Shoppe on Connecticut Avenue and they all got out. Randolph and Root were singing over and over, "Caviar comes from the virgin sturgeon, the sturgeon is a very fine fish. The virgin sturgeon needs no urgin', that's why caviar is my dish." It seemed to be a hard song to stop singing once you got started.
Collins said, "I'm going to walk over to the Manns'."
"So am I," said Peyton. "Coming with us, Peter?"
"That's the last place I want to go right now," said Peter.
Root said, "Don't forget we've got to go out to Mossburger's and get some more whiskey because -- "
"It belongs to a policy holder," finished Peter.
"You fellows can handle it," said Peyton. "We're going to the Manns'. Come on, Ed." They started up the Avenue together.
"Gluttons for punishment, those guys," said Peter. ''Let's get something to eat."
They went into the Deauville and sat down in a booth, but Randolph insisted on singing the virgin sturgeon song. Root and Peter would try to stop him, without success, and then would join in. The proprietor came from behind the counter and stood before the booth shaking his head and pointing toward the door.
Randolph ducked into a phone booth on the way out and they waited for him on the sidewalk. Finally he came out and said, "Had to call a gal. Come on, we'll go around there and take them out to Mossburger's with us. Bee Strowger and her roommate Ellen."
"Don't believe I've ever met them," said Peter.
"They're virgins," said Root disgustedly.
"Caviar comes from the virgin sturgeon . . . "
Mossburger's was on the other side of Laurel, about twenty-five miles from Washington on the Baltimore Pike. They had a few drinks while there, bought the whiskey they needed, and started back with Bee riding in the front seat with Randolph and Root, and Ellen and Peter in the rumble. A lazy lopsided moon was shining through the telephone wires on the side of the road and covering the fields with alternate purple and blackness making the roadside billboards look like blurs of light with jet-black shadows. Behind them the road flowed like a dark river with its white center streak trailing off into nothingness.
Peter had his arm around Ellen and they were talking. He did not remember when he had first put his arm around her or what they had started talking about but they had been talking
earnestly and at great length for some time about a variety of subjects and he hoped he did not sound too drunk.
He saw the moon between the wires and said, "I read somewhere that you could sing a tune with the moon behind wires like that. You consider the moon a note and the wires the lines of the staff. Trouble is, I can't sing."
"I can't either."
''Neither could Lucius Beebe.
"Well," she said. "That's mildly interesting, if true."
"'Struth. I sat next to him in chapel at a prep school I went to and it developed that he couldn't sing a note. His idea of increasing the pitch was to raise the volume.
"So you went to school with Lucius Beebe."
"Yes, But posterity, if it mentions either of us at all, will say Lucius went to school with me. However, posterity is still just around the corner. Aw, that's lousy."
"Might be lots worse."
"Somebody called Beebe the last of the boulevardiers but that's all wrong."
"Yes, it is."
"Why do you think it is?" he asked.
"Because, in the first place, in order to have boulevardiers you have to have boulevards, and we haven't any boulevards in America. New York strikes me as being too hectic to have them, and it's the only place we could have them. Then, a boulevardier isn't someone who sets out to be one. It's a label that gets stuck on a man who has leisure and means and can devote all of his time to the enjoyment of life in a big city and likes it, and who frequents the boulevards where he can have a pleasant time taking everything in without ever becoming seriously involved in it. Beebe certainly strikes me as being seriously involved. And another thing, he can't be the last of the boulevardiers because if you have the right conditions for boulevardiers you have a lot of them and anyone who stays around trying to be a boulevardier when those conditions don t exist any more just isn't doing the right thing as a boulevardier should."
"That fixes the situation all right."
"By the way, what do you do?"
"Work for the government. Classified P-l, should be P-3. My God, she's practical as well as beautiful and intelligent."
"Do you always do this well?"
"Sometimes do a whole lot better. No, strike that out. New paragraph. I don't usually feel called upon to do this well."
He drew her closer. Her thick hair was against his cheek and she felt exciting yet somehow very familiar and natural. She was lovely, no doubt about that, but beauty is almost standardized in girls and you have to go by how they act, what they say, and how they feel when you hold them. He had the idea that he had discovered something and he also felt somehow caught -- trapped by something that he really should get out of but did not want to. After all, he was quite tight and the chances were this was not on the level. The way she analyzed boulevardiers, for instance, she'd probably read all that somewhere and happened to remember it. Girls were either just girls and didn't have any need for a mind or else they were intellectuals, and if they were they were like all intellectuals -- knew book titles and authors the way bookstore clerks knew them, and accepted the ideas of authorized and fashionable writers, properly classified and indexed, and could usually whip out the correct one for the occasion. Conversation to them was a contest of proving they knew more than the other person and it wasn't enjoyment or curiosity that caused them to absorb these duly authorized ideas, it was a routine, like credits for a degree. Left no time for random observation and speculation on the varied and miscellaneous stuff that made up the world.
But this girl had something, if she was real. He'd probably find out there was something phoney about it. But he knew in his heart that the percentage was against its being phoney, and he also knew that he would find out what there was to find out, and he wanted to more than he had ever wanted anything.
He had a strong desire to do something violent, so he let go of her and said, "Do you mind if I yell?"
Without turning her head she answered in a low and throaty tone that set up vibrations inside him. "Yell one for me."
They were going through Laurel, and he threw back his head and yelled - - a long-drawn Indian yell that rattled against the moonlit clapboard of houses and caused a couple of loiterers on the post office steps to jump to their feet. The back flap of the front seat opened and Root's face appeared. "Hey, Mann," he said. "I like my hyenas with stripes."
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